These are the most dangerous days to be Black in America.
On May 25, via social media, the world watched George Floyd be brutally murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, America has erupted in racial and social unrest – protests, riots, statues toppled, flags changed, cops out of control. Historically, there’s nothing America hates more than being called out for its racism, and it will do anything to not have to change its ways. The response to calls for social justice have been one hundred percent on-brand. Violence, thick and pungent and unpredictable, is in the air. These are the days when, in the past, churches were bombed and children were killed, civil rights leaders were assassinated, men were lynched, civil wars were fought. At the best of times, Black people live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, everything they have fought for, built, achieved, can suddenly be snatched away because of the color of their skin. We learn to live with that awareness at an early age.* But in times like these, that awareness needs to be turned up to defcon five, because white America is on the defensive.
Today it’s the Fourth of July. I was asked to write this a month ago. But it’s been hard. I wake up every day angry. A long time ago I had to take an anger management class. In that class they taught us that anger is never the first emotion. There’s always something underlying that drives it: fear, frustration, guilt, pain. This has never been more apparent than in the past month. I wake up some days and my hands are shaking and it feels like I’ve had three cups of coffee before I’ve touched a drop. Turning on the news or social media is like stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. Every day, every hour, every minute, there’s a new video, a new outrage, a new spasm of violence. Responding, reacting, donating, writing. It feels like you’re at the beach trying to mop up the ocean.
Sometimes, the intensity is mitigated by an unexpected voice joining the fray. Click on to the homepage of babynames.com and you’ll see the names of dozens of Black people who have been murdered by systemic racism in America. “Each of these names was somebody’s baby,” the site reminds us. And really, it’s just that simple. I was made aware of this stance taken by babynames.com on Twitter, immediately after I had seen a video of a young, Black woman surprising her mother with the news that she had been accepted into a university and received a hefty scholarship to boot. The combination of the two, one right after another, brought tears to my eyes.
There are people out there who will argue that George Floyd was not headed to any university with a scholarship, nor were Eric Garner or Alton Sterling or a host of others. (They couldn’t make that assumption about Tamir Rice or Trayvon Martin or Elijah McClain and the list goes on, but they don’t care about that.) To them I would say, so what? In this country we operate, presumably, under still vital and worthwhile concepts such as due process, fair trial, and presumption of innocence. John Gotti, Ted Bundy and Dylan Roof all received fair trials. Can Black people get the same rights as a Mafia don, a serial killer, and a spree killer? Hell, the arresting officers infamously bought Roof a hamburger on the way to the jail. Black people are just asking to get their day in court alive and well, guilty or not. It’s the right of every American.
But not Black Americans. Black people have to be perfect. We have to earn the right to live, let alone have the laws protect us. Even then, it’s not guaranteed. Perfection can even be a detriment, or the very thing that puts you in the murderer’s sights in the first place. One need tolook no further than the aforementioned Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to see that being accomplished is not only not protection for Black people, it can be the very thing that puts the target on your back, just as dangerous as trying to illegally sell cigarettes, or being accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, or falling asleep in your car.
As a rule, this country would rather fight to the death to not be labeled racist than it would fight to not actually be racist. That’s true on both an individual and a national level. I once had a white man tell me that being called a racist was just as bad as calling a Black person a nigger. I kid you not. He meant it, too. He swore he was being objective.
Look at the police. In the past month, calls to end police brutality have reached a heretofore unprecedented level. The police response to accusations of brutality has been to respond with even more brutality. Shooting protesters and reporters with rubber bullets, violently hurling women to the ground or kicking a sitting protester in the head, trapping protesters between tear gas on one side and tear gas on the other, assaulting protesters with cars, shoving a 75-year-old man to the ground so hard he had to be hospitalized. Not only that, the police are still killing Black people. On camera. In Atlanta, Rayshard Brooks was killed for sleeping in his car. He was too drunk to drive. He even offered to leave his car and walk to his sister’s house. Forty-five minutes later he was dead. Police will point out that he struggled. I would point out that he was shot in the back while running away.
If you’re feeling gruesome you can find other videos of cops shooting Black people in the back while running away or choking them in a choke hold or with their knee. But the police feel they’re being mistreated. Michael O’Meara, the head of a police union in New York City, berated the press for treating the police like “thugs and animals.” He said they had “375 million interactions a year” and wanted to know why there wasn’t more focus on the good ones. The mind-bending irony of his red-faced outburst was apparently lost on O’Meara. If anything, he should be deeply ashamed of the sheer stupidity in his outburst. He feels “vilified”? He said, specifically, that he was “not Derek Chauvin,” Floyd’s murderer. But Eric Garner’s murderer, Daniel Pantaleo, stayed on the New York City police force for five more years after Garner’s death. When he finally got fired, he was angry about it. Not that I’m recommending it, but if you watch that video, there are several men holding Garner. There is no reason for Pantaleo to maintain the choke hold on him. But he had the bloodlust by that point, and now Eric Garner is dead. Pantaleo sued to get his job back last year.
White America sees death-dealing violence as its private domain, and it wields it with savage abandon. After all, how did this country even come into being except by sustained, concentrated violence on a biblical scale? Now, it can afford to see itself as a nation of laws, after breaking all moral and ethical laws to get what it got. A couple of centuries of acting as all four horsemen of the apocalypse – war, famine, pestilence and death – to everybody else, America now expects everybody else to behave if they want to participate. To be grateful.** And part of being grateful means acknowledging that white people are on top.
The reason the police aren’t charged with a crime and jailed when they abuse their power is because in the eyes of many, they are not abusing their power. They are actually doing the job they are hired to do. The police have become white America’s method of keeping Black people (or Latino or Native or whoever) down without having to get their hands dirty. Going back to slavery, the method of keeping Black people in line was physical and emotional intimidation. Much of police institutions as we know them evolved from slave patrols and slave catchers. There has always been violence toward Black people from the police, because there was always going to be. It’s baked into their DNA.
This is why, when Pantaleo was finally fired, a Gofundme campaign was started in his name, even though he’d been making over a hundred grand a year. To this point, it’s raised $178,533 for a guy who committed murder and got away with it. If you go there now, you’ll see the organizer of the campaign say that Pantaleo “was only doing his job.” I think he’s telling the truth. The reason why it’s “notoriously hard to prosecute police officers for deaths in custody” is because the will is not there. The powers that be don’t want the police to be less violent. You can watch Pantaleo murder Garner. You can see that the man is obviously incapacitated and there are five cops holding him. You can hear Garner say he can’t breathe. Pantaleo was just “doing his job.”
Last year in Aurora, Colorado, 23-year-old Elijah McClain was killed on his way home from a convenience store. He had not committed a crime. He did not have a weapon. In fact, the person who called the police even said that he was unarmed and “no one was in danger.” Police stopped him and he told them that he had a right to walk home. Which he did. They put their hands on him – why is not known, since they weren’t even responding to a crime – and then they killed him. After he died, Dave Young, the Adams County district attorney, decided not to file charges, since there wasn’t enough evidence to support that the officers had broken the law — even though they had accosted McClain for no reason. They were, after all, just doing their job.
There’s been a recent turn in that case, and it’s telling. Three officers of the Aurora police department have been fired and a fourth one resigned. Not for murdering McClain, but for taking pictures near the site where he was killed, re-enacting the murder, and laughing about it. Their defense was that they were “trying to cheer up a friend” — that friend being one of the officers who was involved in the McClain murder, Jason Rosenblatt.
Who do you have to be, what kind of person is that, who are these people to make a joke out of a young man being killed? Why was re-enacting the murder that Rosenblatt was a part of going to cheer him up? I’m not going to go into a list of everything that should have made Elijah McClain’s life matter to these police, to Colorado, to anybody, because I shouldn’t have to. I can not begin to fathom how they could laugh about that young man’s death. But I do believe that the fault does not belong to those cops alone. It’s indicative of the bigger problem.
That is who becomes a cop in America. That mindset. I believe completely that Elijah McClain was murdered because he dared to assert that he had the right to walk home. No crime. No weapon. Just a Black man declaring his rights. And that was enough to set off the cops, when their authority was questioned, even though no “crime” had been committed. Black people are supposed to shut up and take it: If they don’t, they deserve what they get. That’s it. The police were able to make a joke about it later because, like so many cops before them, they took comfort in their impunity – and Elijah’s life didn’t really matter to them.
(Remember, what, two months ago when Michiganders stormed the state capitol to protest having to take steps to stop the spread of coronavirus? They came armed. And the response was meek. Not solely because the protesters were white, but also because they were strapped and they were numerous.)
Elijah McClain, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Rayshard Brooks, on and on were all grossly outnumbered. They couldn’t defend themselves. If they even tried to fight for their lives, that was used as an excuse to murder them.
And when the establishment found out what happened they responded by saying the police were doing their job. In the dozens or hundreds or thousands of cases of the murder of Black people by the police, going back decades, rarely does anyone do time. Black people were being lynched, no one did time. Just like no one did time for the murder of Emmitt Till.
Because, like Till, Elijah McClain didn’t need to commit a crime. He was a crime.
As am I. And my father. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Who knows when one of us is going to be singled out to keep everybody else in line? Who knows who’s going to become the next grotesque video, the next hashtag?
In the past month America has been taking a long hard look in the mirror, and it has not been liking the Dorian Gray visage looking back. A demagogue is in the White House. A global pandemic is rampaging across the country, largely because of this administration’s failed policies. The economy is on the verge of collapse. There’s a certain segment of this population that will do anything to hold on to its power. They’ll blame anyone for everything that’s gone wrong with this country except themselves. And if history serves, the first place that blame will fall will be on the heads of Black people.
But there’s something else happening. In May, a group of armed Black men calling themselves the Panther Special Operations command marched right up to the house of Gregory McMichael, one of the men responsible for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. They basically dared anybody to come out and hunt them the way they had Arbery. In Shreveport, Louisiana, there is a conflict going on over whether or not a Confederate statue will stay or go. Four Black women obtained a permit to peacefully protest the statue every Saturday. In June they were met by the Gulf Coast Patriot Militia, white bikers who did not have a permit and who were armed. The next weekend the Sleep Is For the Rich Gun Club showed up, armed to the hilt, to protect Black women and unarmed protesters. Georgia and Louisiana are open-carry states.
“You don’t win wars by marching and protesting,” one of the leaders of the Georgia Panthers, General Rottweiler, said, “you win wars by fighting back.” These are dangerous days for Black people, yes. But if things keep going the way they’re going, they’re going to be dangerous days for everybody.
* The first time I was called a nigger was when I was five years old. I was at the playground and the little white boy who said it to me was about my age. I didn’t know what it meant and I think I called the boy a booger or a wormhead in response. There was something about the naked, coiled intensity with which the boy had directed his insult that gave me pause, however, and I made sure to ask my mother what it meant when I got home.
** That’s not even just within our nation’s borders. That’s our attitude worldwide. In the entire atomic age we’re the only nation that’s ever been crazy enough to actually drop a nuclear bomb on someone. That’s AT LEAST two hundred and seventy five thousand civilians dead and most experts consider that a conservative estimate. Today, not only do we have more nuclear weapons than anyone else, we take it upon ourselves to decide who can and can not have them, and we feel that is our moral perogative.